2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author,Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Following Sisyphus, not Pandora

According to myth, Pandora unleashed all evils upon the world; only hope remained inside the box. Hope for human survival and progress rests on two assumptions: (1) Human constructive tendencies can counter human destructive tendencies, and (2) Human beings can act on the basis of long-term considerations, rather than merely short-term needs and desires. My personal optimism, and my years of research on "good work", could not be sustained without these assumptions.

Yet I lay awake at night with the dangerous thought that pessimists may be right. For the first time in history — as far as we know! — we humans live in a world that we could completely destroy. The human destructive tendencies described in the past by Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud, the "realist" picture of human beings embraced more recently by many sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and game theorists might be correct; these tendencies could overwhelm any proclivities toward altruism, protection of the environment, control of weapons of destruction, progress in human relations, or seeking to become good ancestors. As one vivid data point: there are few signs that the unprecedented power possessed by the United States is being harnessed to positive ends.

Strictly speaking, what will happen to the species or the planet is not a question for scientific study or prediction. It is a question of probabilities, based on historical and cultural considerations, as well as our most accurate description of human nature(s). Yet, science (as reflected, for example, in contributions to Edge discussions) has recently invaded this territory with its assertions of a biologically-based human moral sense. Those who assert a human moral sense are wagering that, in the end, human beings will do the right thing. Of course, human beings have the capacities to make moral judgments — that is a mere truism. But my dangerous thought is that this moral sense is up for grabs — that it can be mobilized for destructive ends (one society's terrorist is another society's freedom fighter) or overwhelmed by other senses and other motivations, such as the quest for power, instant gratification, or annihilation of one's enemies.

I will continue to do what I can to encourage good work — in that sense, Pandoran hope remains. But I will not look upon science, technology, or religion to preserve life. Instead, I will follow Albert Camus' injunction, in his portrayal of another mythic figure endlessly attempting to push a rock up a hill: one should imagine Sisyphus happy.